A teen from Bermuda died at a Utah treatment center, sparking anger there and investigations here

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

She had been sent by Bermuda’s child welfare system more than 2,600 miles away to a Utah facility for troubled teens that was supposed to help her.

But Kirsta struggled at West Ridge Academy, a sprawling 68-bed campus tucked between new housing developments and storage unit facilities in West Jordan. The 17-year-old had been cutting herself, according to a police report, and told staff members she felt that no one loved her.

Then on Nov. 14, Kirsta tried to end her life. She was rushed to a local hospital, and died the next day.

The girl’s death has shattered her mother, who said she had no idea how long Kirsta had been in Utah — and had no say in the decision to send her here. She found out just a month before her daughter’s death where she was, but hadn't been allowed to communicate with her.

“I was angry,” she said. “If you’re a mother, to be separated from your child, your first instinct is whether she is OK. What’s going through her mind? How does she feel? Why is she so far away from her family?”

Kirsta’s death has also prompted concern from other Bermudians, particularly mothers whose children are in the island’s foster care system and have been sent to Utah for treatment. They want their government to send fewer teens to youth residential treatment centers in the United States, and question whether it’s necessary.

‘We are worried about her’

When Kirsta’s mother describes her daughter, she recalls her beauty, and her love of writing and aspirations to one day be a journalist.

As a young child, she was a “typical little girl,” who loved to play dress-up and joke around. As she grew up, she always wanted to hang out with her friends and was involved in her church’s youth group.

But Kirsta struggled with depression. Her mother, who asked to not be identified to protect her younger children, said her oldest daughter had spent much of her life in foster care after the mother says she made choices that she “wasn’t proud of.”

How Kirsta ended up in Utah is still somewhat of a mystery to her mother, who said Kirsta was in the government’s care, but she never signed over her parental rights.

Just weeks before her daughter’s death, she had emailed Bermuda’s attorney general to ask where her daughter was.

“I have been informed that she is no longer in Bermuda,” wrote the mother, who currently lives in the United Kingdom. “I would like to know how could this [have] been done without mine and her father’s knowledge? … Kirsta has a family that miss and love her dearly, also we are worried about her and desperately would like to know any information about her.”

Her mother didn’t know then that Kirsta was one of 18 Bermudians sent to the United States last year to facilities for troubled teens.

Bermuda Department of Child and Family Services officials did not respond to emails from The Salt Lake Tribune with questions about how their government decided West Ridge Academy, where Kirsta was sent, or any of the other facilities across the United States were qualified to treat their children in foster care.

The Royal Gazette, a newspaper in Bermuda, reported in December that its government has spent $33 million over the past decade sending its youth to “troubled teen” facilities in the United States.

Several of those facilities are in Utah, but it’s not clear how many Bermudian youths have been sent here. The Tribune has had a public records request pending through a local reporter in Bermuda since November, but has not yet received documents. Bermuda is a British island territory deep in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Bermuda government wrote in a public statement in December that sending a youth overseas is not a decision taken lightly and is only done “after all other resources locally are exhausted.” Local resources, they say, include family, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other family intervention programs. They further stated that removing a child from their home and placing them in DCFS care, like Kirsta was, is only done as a “last resort.”

Kirsta’s death

While at West Ridge Academy, Kirsta shared a room with three other girls in one of the nearly dozen multicolored brick cottages scattered throughout the 50-acre campus.

But in the days before her death, Kirsta hadn’t been sleeping in her room. She was moved to the main common area, so staffers could keep an eye on her after she had attempted to harm herself.

But the school allows students 10 minutes of privacy to shower, according to a police report. When a staffer told her that her shower time was up one Thursday afternoon, Kirsta reportedly asked to go to the bathroom.

She was given an extra two minutes. That’s when she hanged herself.

Employees told police later that only a few minutes had passed, but police weren’t able to verify the timeline — the recording equipment for the security cameras had been unplugged since September, staff told police.

Kirsta was taken to a local hospital and later to Primary Children’s Hospital. She died the following day.

Her death prompted investigations in Utah and outrage among some in Bermuda.

The West Jordan Police Department had an open investigation for several months, which was closed last week after a Utah medical examiner determined Kirsta’s death was a suicide.

The licensing division of the Utah Department of Human Services still has an investigation pending to determine if West Ridge Academy violated any rules. Officials with the department declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Ridge Academy in West Jordan, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

West Ridge Academy’s license is in good standing, though it was required to submit a “corrective action plan” in 2017 after an inspector came for an unannounced visit and found the facility hadn’t given the required notification about two allegations of a boy having sexual contact with other residents.

The inspector also cited staffing issues as a contributing factor, and facility management wrote in a letter that they suspended some staff without pay for violating the staff-to-student ratios, retrained its staff and hired more workers.

West Ridge Academy — which was initially named Utah Boys Ranch, but rebranded in 2005 — applied to be a charter school in 2016 but withdrew its attempt after former students spoke out with allegations of abuse.

One student described watching children being pushed face down into the ground by staff, and characterized the facility as “an unregulated prison.”

The facility challenged those accusations, saying they were unfounded.

When asked about Kirsta’s death, Janet Farnsworth, the executive director of West Ridge Academy, told The Tribune in a recent email that the state’s licensing officer had assured them after an initial meeting that “we had followed our protocol for safety and that our team that intervened with this young lady was properly trained per state standards.”

Farnsworth said her facility has spent “a significant amount of time” reviewing policies and procedures, and trained and debriefed their staff. She said Kirsta’s death did not prompt changes in their treatment methods, but they did make changes to how they respond during crisis events. They’ve changed the way they decide which students require more supervision for their safety, she said, and also added more lighting and signage across the campus to better assist emergency workers when they are called.

Farnsworth said Kirsta’s fellow students and their staff have all been impacted by the girl’s death, and a vigil was held for her last month.

“We are truly devastated by this event,” she said, “and yet remain committed to this important work that we do to assist families in need of hope and healing.”

Fear in Bermuda

Farnsworth further wrote that Kirsta’s “adoptive mother” had been in touch with a therapist at West Ridge, who is continuing to offer her comfort.

But Kirsta’s biological mother said that though her daughter was in DCFS custody since 2010, she had never been adopted. She says she never heard anything from West Ridge Academy until she recently emailed Farnsworth.

The mother wanted to know more about what it had been like for Kirsta so many miles from home: What was her mindset like? How did she pass her time? Did she socialize or have any favorite classes or teachers?

She was met with a response from a lawyer for West Ridge, who urged her to direct her questions to Bermuda officials.

“Though I very much understand your desire to ask additional and follow up questions,” the attorney wrote, “based upon related privacy laws and contractual obligations, WRA is unable to share any information with you at this time.”

It was another devastating blow to Kirsta’s mother.

The limited public information has also led to Bermudians questioning whether their children are safe in U.S. facilities — and led to calls to change the system there.

Several petitions have circulated online, and a Bermudian Amnesty International Club created a video asking for “justice” for Kirsta.

“We want answers about the treatment of children under the Department of Children and Family Services,” a teen girl says in the video, “and we will stand by until justice is served.”

Kirsta’s death has also caused worry among other mothers whose children have been sent off the island. Tina Ray said that her 17-year-old son has been in placements in Utah since last January — and is currently at Discovery Ranch, a 60-bed facility that sprawls 20 acres in Utah County.

Ray said she worries for her son, and said he was sent to Utah without any input from her.

“I would have wanted to know information about the facility,” she said, “and the reason my son was being referred.”

Hearing about Kirsta’s death and other stories about how youths have been treated in Utah weighs heavily on her — and she hasn’t been able to ask her son if he’s OK.

“I believe he has been coerced to believe being out there is a better option,” she said. “The communication with my son has been completely severed.”

Kirsta’s mother similarly wasn’t able to contact her daughter. But as Kirsta had been sitting in Utah feeling alone, her mother said she had tried to get a letter to her through a social worker.

It was dated two days before Kirsta’s death. Her mother believes it likely never made it to her.

She read the letter on a Bermuda television station, tears streaming down her face as she read about the first time she held Kirsta as a baby.

She fell in love instantly, she told her daughter in the letter, a love different than anything she had ever felt before. The mother wanted her daughter to know she was proud of her, and that she was praying for the right people to come into her life and give her guidance.

“Know that I love you,” the mother wrote. “That love that I have for you then has only gotten stronger and hasn’t faded away.”

The Salt Lake Tribune